Sorting the Students

Black alumni of specialized high schools: SHSAT needs scrutiny, not just defenders

A group of black alumni of the city’s specialized high schools say the alumni coalition calling to retain the current admissions system doesn’t fully speak for them.

In a letter sent to Chalkbeat, members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative say they want the Specialized High School Admissions Test to face new scrutiny, not just be defended. Mayor Bill de Blasio and civil rights groups have pointed to the test, which determines admission to eight of the city’s top high schools, as contributing to the scarcity of black and Hispanic students at those schools.

Just 11 percent of the offers to those eight schools went to black and Hispanic students in 2014, thought they made up about 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders.

De Blasio has backed a state bill that would require the specialized high schools to use more than the single test score to make admissions decisions. The City Council education committee is poised to vote on a symbolic measure of support of that bill this month, sparking the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations to release a five-page letter to Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito telling her to vote “no” on the resolution.

In their letter, the black alumni group doesn’t say the single-test method should be abandoned, and joins the Coalition in asking for stepped-up recruitment efforts directed at minority students. But the group reiterates concerns about the test’s content, including that it doesn’t reflect middle-school curriculums.

“In light of these issues, we wonder why the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations is defending the current SHSAT, instead of urging the City’s Department of Education to insure that it is fair?” the letter asks. “Like the Coalition, we believe that using a test can guarantee an admissions system free of favoritism and bias, but we are not certain that the current SHSAT offers that.”

Here’s the Diversity Initiative’s letter:

The members of Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative and other alumni and friends who support our goal of increasing the number of Black and Latino students enrolled at the city’s specialized high schools are pleased that we and the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations are in agreement that increased resources need to be devoted to outreach and improving educational quality citywide, and that the Discovery Program needs to be reinstated at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science High Schools. We would go further and demand better schools, and improved efforts to identify and provide an enriched and accelerated education to talented students in every neighborhood, and not simply increased access to test prep. We would also urge the Department of Education to specifically target the Discovery and DREAM-SHSI programs to students from communities currently underrepresented at city’s specialized high schools. Like the Coalition, we believe that using a test can guarantee an admissions system free of favoritism and bias, but we are not certain that the current SHSAT offers that.

As far as we know, the current SHSAT has never been validated. It is deeply concerning that biases inherent in its scoring methods — most notably, an acknowledged preference for the “uneven genius” — may themselves provide an advantage to certain groups of students. Additionally, the inclusion of certain question types, scrambled paragraphs and logic questions, which are unfamiliar to most school children provide an advantage to students who have the benefit of private prep. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is inconsistent with notions of basic fairness that the SHSAT assesses knowledge of concepts beyond the scope of the standard middle school curriculum. This disconnect between what most students have been taught, and what they are being tested on helps explain why some public middle schools send hundreds of students to specialized high schools each year while most public middle schools send none. We believe the SHSAT should be challenging, and measure students’ critical thinking skills, and their ability to apply concepts, but it should be aligned with what children have been taught. All public middle schools should have the same capacity to prepare students for success on the SHSAT and admission to the city’s top public high schools, not just a handful. In light of these issues, we wonder why the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations is defending the current SHSAT, instead of urging the City’s Department of Education to insure that it is fair?

Regardless of whether admission to the city’s oldest specialized high schools continues to be based on a single test or permits consideration of other relevant factors, we need to be sure that whatever test utilized is fair. Please join us and other concerned alumni in asking the Coalition of Specialized High School Alumni Associations to establish that the SHSAT is fair. We ask that you refrain from signing their petition of support for the SHSAT until we are assured that any test used as part of the admissions process is fair to all test takers.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.